In Review: slowthai - TYRON

slowthai makes it clear that TYRON is a redemptive study of self, but this album of two conflicting sides lacks the urgency of his debut, nor is it a focused enough commitment to the idea of self-examination.
Posted: 11 February 2021 Words: James Kilpin

Slowthai has, throughout his relatively short career to date, been a divisive, controversial and wilfully provocative character. In some ways, the perception of him as an uncompromising, fearless voice who speaks his mind (that of the disaffected working class youth) is what appealed to so many; and his willingness to directly address politicians, whether on stage or on his lauded debut album Nothing Great About Britain, was taken as a manifestation of this self-assured, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.

Elsewhere though, the reckless and cocksure posturing has garnered entirely justified criticism, not least in response to his painfully misjudged and entirely unacceptable behaviour at the NME Awards show which saw him harass host Katharine Ryan, and then try to fight crowd members who had heckled in response to his behaviour. Slowthai swiftly apologised for what happened, and Ryan herself brushed it off, but there’s no denying it left a sour taste in the mouth for many onlookers. 

The discussion about how the music industry holds people responsible – or fails to – for their behaviour is one that is perhaps too complex to go into here. But the truth of this incident is that, while no small number of people think he got off lightly, for the most part it seemed to have been basically forgiven and forgotten. And before long it became apparent that it would have little bearing on slowthai’s popularity (for better or worse).

Which is why the final pre-album single ‘CANCELLED’ – comprised of little more than arrogant boasts and bad-faith taunts (“How you gonna cancel me?”) – feels all the more baffling. There’s a discussion to be had about whether slowthai is still deserving of the critical acclaim, radio play, industry support, or obvious fan adoration. But regardless of that, for many people, the matter had more-or-less been put to bed. Lessons had supposedly been learned. So to then release a track so tone-deaf, so entirely un-constructive in its contribution to the conversation, just reeks of the sort of edgelord comedians who endlessly complain about censorship while being paid huge sums to gleefully say whatever they like (invariably on standup specials with names like Triggered or Unleashed). 

Painting himself as some victimised, vilified figure doesn’t only feel at odds with the reality of the situation, it also brings into question the sincerity of messaging around the album and how, as he said when the record was announced: “I’ve learnt a lot about myself while creating this album and I will continue to grow into a better person for myself and aim to be a reflection of what I want to see in this world”. 

Previously, lead singles ‘feel away’ and ‘nhs’ had hinted heavily at a more reflective and introspective approach, a potential stepping stone to greater maturity both as an artist and as an individual; the former a heartfelt tribute to his deceased brother, the latter dealing with ideas of sadness, of light and shade in life, recognising that not everything has to go smoothly all the time – “what’s a flight without turbulence?”.

It’s this idea of light and shade, two sides of a split personality, that slowthai explores on TYRONThe album’s title – his real first name – makes it clear that this is a study of self, the real person behind the character of slowthai, presenting these two conflicting sides of his personality, the brash and the sensitive, like a rap Jekyll & Hyde.

Like its creator, the record is also split into two distinct halves. The first, wild and brazen with song titles in all capitals. The second, all lower case, more mellow and introspective. While not exactly a groundbreaking concept, it’s a fairly interesting way of trying to explore the duality of human nature, and how we as individuals grapple with internal conflict.

The strength and intrigue of TYRON is so much more evident when this concept is properly explored, and the second half of the album is much more lyrically compelling and thematically rich. Too often in the album’s first half the substance or meaning is lost to predictable and unoriginal bravado which lacks the wit that we know slowthai is capable of.

What’s more, on Nothing Great About Britain he managed to channel a righteous anger at those that had left him feeling abandoned and alienated – namely a Conservative government that has pursued the crippling politics of austerity for over a decade – but the anger on TYRON is markedly less focused, as if those who deserve to bear the brunt of his frustrations now are the people that dare to question his behaviour. So much more interesting are the tracks where he fully engages with the album’s core themes, looking inward rather than getting caught up in overplayed ‘fuck the haters’ rhetoric.

That’s not to say it all needs to be melancholic and navel-gazing. The captivating second half demonstrates self-assuredness as much as it does vulnerability, while the A$AP Rocky collaboration ‘MAZZA’, the highlight of side one, proves that even amid the boasts and braggadocio of the more conventional rap bangers there is still room for references to mental health struggles and a complicated relationship with drugs, all of which add to the texture and complexity of the project.

In truth, TYRON is a decent attempt at executing an interesting concept, and his ambition to try something slightly unconventional is proof that slowthai remains an intriguing artist despite his flaws. Ultimately though, despite there being a lot to like about the record, the end product is slightly lacking either the urgency of his debut, or a focused enough commitment to the idea of self-examination to fulfil the obvious potential.

TYRON is out tomorrow (12th February) via Method RecordsInterscope.

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